Iran-backed militias attacks on US soldiers brings spectre of war across Middle East closer

The spectre of war spreading across the Middle East, with the US and its allies drawn into direct conflict with Iran, has just drawn that much closer with the killing of three American servicemen at the Jordanian border.

While the threat of conflagration across the region has been simmering since the brutal Hamas assault on Israel, and the subsequent Israeli onslaught on Gaza, Tehran has been repeatedly accused of using its proxy militias to exploit the situation to an incendiary level.

The attack on Tower 22 base in Rukban, a remote area near the Syrian border, by the Iranian backed Islamic Resistance in Iraq resulted in the first American deaths by enemy fire since the start of the Gaza War. Around 34 others were seriously wounded, many of them suffering from traumatic brain injuries.

US officials said the enemy drones had come in “very low and very slow” at the same as a US drone was returning from a mission and so the air defence system was turned off. The troops, in their sleeping quarters when the strike took place had no warning of what was coming. The Pentagon will rightly be concerned by the vulnerability exposed in the defences of such a strategic base.

United States Mideast (Planet Labs PBC)
United States Mideast (Planet Labs PBC)

The US has carried out limited retaliatory military action following more than 150 attacks on its bases since mid-October by Iranian backed militias. Those missile and drone strikes had not, however, caused any US fatalities until now. There is widespread belief that this time the response needs to be far more severe; not least because this is an election year in the US and the President cannot afford to look weak.

President Joe Biden made clear that the US held Iran culpable for the latest assault, vowing retribution he said: “While we are still gathering the facts of this attack, we know it was carried out by radical Iran-backed militant groups operating in Syria and Iraq…We will carry on their commitment to fight terrorism. And have no doubt – we will hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner our choosing”.

Tehran meanwhile claimed that accusation of its involvement in the assault was “baseless”. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanani said “Iran was not involved in the decision making of Resistance groups” in how they chose to “defend Palestinians or their own countries”.

This has been Tehran’s riposte to previous such charges of collusion. Iran is the main player in the “Axis of Resistance” against Israel and the US which also includes the Lebanese Hezbollah, Houthis, militant groups in Syria and Iraq, and Hamas.

Both Washington and Tehran still appear to want to avoid aggressive rhetoric spilling into combat. But with each militia attack, clamour has grown for action by the Biden administration against Iran with the Republicans charging that the President is failing to protect US troops.

Donald Trump, who when President pulled the US out of his predecessor Barack Obama’s landmark international agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme declared that Biden has brought the US to “brink of World War Three” by allowing Tehran’s power to grow.

“Three years ago, Iran was weak, broke, and totally under control. Thanks to my maximum pressure policy, the Iranian regime could barely scrape two dollars together to fund their terrorist proxies,” Trump said in a tirade. “This attack would NEVER have happened if I was president, not even a chance.”

In reality, attacks had also taken place against US forces in Syria and Iraq by Iranian backed militias when Trump was in the White House, especially after he ordered the assassination of Qasem Suleimani, the head of the IRGC, in a drone strike. The American withdrawal from the nuclear deal also weakened reformers in Iran and helped propel the hardliner Ebrahim Raisi into the presidency in Tehran.

European leaders warned against chances of a wider conflagration. Rishi Sunak said: “We are concerned and would urge Iran to continue to de-escalate tensions in the region,” he said, adding: “We absolutely condemn what has happened over the past couple of days. My thoughts are with all of those impacted, those who lost their lives, their families and those that are injured...we stand resolutely with our allies to bring stability and peace to the region, and that’s what we’ll continue to work towards”.

In the US, however, the Republicans are now in full pursuit of Biden who is trailing in the polls at a number of battleground states. Senator Tom Cotton said, “the only answer to these attacks must be devastating military retaliation against Iran’s terrorist forces… anything less will confirm Joe Biden as a coward”.

Fellow Senator Lindsey Graham, a senior figure in US defence circles, demanded that the “Biden Administration strike targets of significance inside Iran, not only as reprisal for the killing of our forces, but as deterrence against future aggression, The only thing the Iranian regime understands is force.”

Islamist Resistance in Iraq threatened to continue attacks: “As we have warned, if the US keeps supporting Israel, there will be escalations. All the US interests in the region are legitimate targets and we don’t care about US threats to respond, we know the direction we are taking, and martyrdom is our prize.”

Hamas whose raid into Israel on 7th October in which 1,200 people were killed and around 250 taken hostage triggered the conflict in which 26,000 Palestinians have died in Gaza, declared that the American deaths were a direct result of Washington’s support for Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Sami Abu Zahri, one of the group’s senior officials, said “the killing of three American soldiers is a message to the US administration that unless the killing of innocents in Gaza stops, it must confront the entire nation. The continued American-Zionist aggression on Gaza is capable of exploding the situation in the region.”

Jordan meanwhile risks what it has striven very hard to avoid – being drawn into a spreading strife. The Kingdom, which was once a bloody arena for combat between the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) and its Hashemite rulers, is an important Western ally. The US has provided more than $1 billion in military aid to the kingdom over the last decade and the British military has held joint exercises with Jordanian forces. The country’s military bases are highly valuable for Washington and London.

Sir Mark Lyall Grant, a former British ambassador to the UN, and former National Security Advisor in Downing Street, acknowledged that the attack in Jordan was “very serious”, and he expected President Biden to respond in the next 24 hours in a “military fashion”.

These responses, Sir Mark held, although strong, would be against Iran backed militias and not Iran itself. He pointed out that early forecasts of a regional conflict when the latest Gaza War started have failed to materialise.

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who worked in Bill Clinton’s administration suggested “the question Biden faces is whether he just wants to react to events in the region or whether he wants to send a bigger message that attempts to restore a sense of deterrence that just hasn’t existed in the region for months now.

“The response they are looking for here is one that is ‘not too hard’ provoking war, and also ‘not too soft’ allowing the militia attacks to continue, but ‘something that seems just right’.

These are difficult finely tuned calibrations, and a miscalculation brings with it a great risk of conflict – the law of unintended consequences in a violent and volatile scenario.